My phone rang with a FaceTime notification and within seconds, I was staring at the faces of two dear friends. One woman had just hung up from an unexpected phone call that provided clarity and also included quite a few careless words. She processed, we listened, and after a while she said:
“Kaitlyn, you’ve been quiet but I can tell something is on your mind. What do you think?”
I hesitated for a moment, wondering just how crazy the answer would sound, but I know these friends and they know me, so I took a deep breath before saying the strange six-word sentence that was in my mind.
“I don’t think I’ve ever said this before,” I began, “but the more you share what was said to you, the more this phrase keeps crossing my mind. Maybe it’s somehow that you need to hear? I don’t know. Anyway, it’s this: You are not a trash can. You can choose to hold the garbage words that were spoken over you and to you—if you want. But also, you do not have to. They were not kind, they were not truthful, and you do not have to hold them.”
I watched the screen and waited. She wiped tears away and then, with a laugh, said I needed to write it out and tell other people, too. We smiled, three friends separated by distance but connected through a screen and the weekly sharing of stories small and ordinary, unexpected and difficult, hopeful and heartbreaking, and everything in between.
I’ll be the first to raise my hand and admit: Community is complicated and messy. It can cut us to the core, making it difficult to trust again, whispering the lie that it’s just not worth the trouble and we’ll be fine on our own. This is a script I know well, a wound I’m intimately familiar with, and based on the not-at-all scientific research I recently did via Instagram, I’m not the only one. Hundreds of people replied and the responses were heartbreaking, echoing years of conversations with friends and the soundtrack within my own mind.
Many years ago, a trusted friend spoke a single sentence that I’m still intentionally working to untangle and shake off over a decade later. They labeled me unfairly, I accepted the garbage words as truth, and the soundtrack began to play.
“Can you easily remember something specific that was spoken to you a long time ago, whether it be kind or unkind, and do you still frequently think of it today?” I asked on Instagram. 96% said yes. In a follow-up question, the vast majority said the word or phrase that often comes to mind was first spoken over a decade ago.
When I asked, “Is it fair to say someone else’s words repeat like a soundtrack that kept playing long after the conversation ended or the passing remark was made?” 99% answered in the affirmative, saying, “Yes, and it impacts how I show up in the world.”
This would be a wonderful thing—if the script stuck on repeat were loving and thoughtful. Sadly, almost everyone said the words they remember were hurtful and unkind. While it’s a small sampling of a few hundred people, I have a hunch this is true far and wide. We carry careless words with us, often without recognizing that we’ve internalized the script, a quiet hum of “you’re too ___” or “you’re not ___” or “if only you were ___” becoming background noise.
I can’t tell you exactly where the “stop” button is for the soundtrack, but perhaps the first step is to recognize the tune and ask the Lord what is true. You can trust Him to be gentle, kind, and “most careful” with you (Matthew 11:29, 1 Peter 5:7).
I’ve heard this particular script for over a decade, but God is using the very thing that wounded me—words from a friend—to bring about healing. It’s imperfect, to be sure. My friends and I get it wrong sometimes. But through FaceTime calls and patient listening, evening walks and caring questions, sharing regular life and offering kind words, I’ve seen God’s redemption at work.
Our words hold weight. They can wound or encourage, tear down or build up. May we, as Holley Gerth so beautifully says, be friends who only speak words that make souls stronger. May we hold onto the good and kind, as well as the needed and helpful, while recognizing the garbage that isn’t ours to hold. May we not only think but also speak what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8).
I’m sorry if someone’s words hurt you this week. Words can wound, intentional or not. But I want you to know—you don’t have to hold onto every single one. It’s not as easy as tying a bow and tossing out the trash, I know. But maybe today you call a friend or two and let them speak what is actually true. Maybe you laugh and cry. Maybe someone will say a strange, unexpected six-word sentence. Maybe you declare it to be trash day, mentally setting the can at the curb. Who knows, but I’ll say it through a screen again, this time to you. I promise it’s true:
You are not a trash can.
You are loved. You are loved. You are loved.
P.S. We aren’t to ignore or run from conflict—it’s part of being a community. But healthy conflict and helpful correction are not the same as criticism or condemnation.
We don’t often talk about friendship breakups or the wounds that can come from the words of a friend, but if you’ve experienced either, know that you aren’t alone. Chapters 3 and 4 of my book Even If Not speak directly to this, offering hope in the heartbreak.